Like thousands of high school seniors being courted by college football programs this month, Dominic Cooper will have been led through hangar-sized weight rooms and plied with prime rib dinners by the time National Signing Day rolls around on Feb. 5. Yet should Cooper, a defensive end from New Orleans's O.P. Walker High, forego scholarship offers from Colorado and LSU and sign with Clemson, Tigers fans can thank a fresh-faced nursing student with a southern drawl. Albertine White, who on Jan. 11 ate breakfast and toured me campus with Cooper as one of the Tiger PAWS, the school's official recruiting hostesses, may be the difference if Cooper comes to Clemson. "Albertine's recruit was smitten with her," says PAWS chief Jill Wilks. Adds White, giggling, "He said that if there were more girls like me, he could definitely see himself coming here."
Welcome to a checkered but unchecked area of college athletics. The NCAA has rules on just about every aspect of recruiting—visits can't be longer than 48 hours; entertainment outings must be within 30 miles of campus—but no one monitors the practice of using women to wangle a player commitment. The tradition began in earnest when Bear Bryant sent lipsticked, winsome coeds to visit All-Americas considering Alabama in the 1960s. Since then the use of hostesses to schmooze prospects has become routine. Texas has its Angels, Alabama its 'Bama Belles, N.C. State its Stately Ladies. Recently, Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen noted that the school's "personable and pretty girls" (a.k.a. the Black-Eyed Susans) are "a valuable asset."
If you think using women as bait sounds antiquated, unsavory or both, you're not alone. Friedgen's comments led to an editorial in his school's newspaper decrying hostesses as "archaic." And in November an Arizona State student got national attention when, writing in ASU's State Press, she labeled the Sun Devil Recruiters "hos to attract the bros." Some hostess squad leaders have lately felt it necessary to speak out in defense of their members. Says Debbie Yow, Maryland athletic director, "Our Black-Eyed Susans wear camper clothes—sneakers and khakis. We're not selling sex."
Still, some recruits may find it hard to see where the lines are drawn. Besides being escorted around by hostesses, recruits visiting Alabama and Michigan in recent years have also been entertained by strippers. Last month a woman filed a $1 million suit against the University of Colorado alleging she was raped at an off-campus party for football recruits. Stephanie Barnes, a former 'Bama Belle, understands how things can get out of hand. One high-profile recruit, she says, tried to lure her to his hotel room, saying, "The girls at Kentucky and Georgia did it."
"The mindset of these recruits is one of entitlement," says Kathy Redmond, of the National Coalition Against Violent Athletes, "yet they're expected to know the difference between women who want to be with them and those who don't."
Some schools are making adjustments. In recent years Miami's Hurricane Honeys were renamed the Cane Connection, Clemson's Bengal Babes became the Tiger PAWS, and most athletic departments now require hostesses to sign contracts saying that they will conduct themselves with decorum around recruits. In the end self-policing may clean up an area where the regulators seem afraid to tread.